I have nothing brilliant or original to say in the wake of last Friday’s bloody apocalypse in Newtown, CT. Yet, I can’t let that horrible tragedy quietly recede into my personal and the national subconscious without saying something about it, disjointed as it may be, that registers my grief, anger, and despair and my sketchy thoughts regarding what may have caused this calamity and what, if anything, we might do to prevent something similar from happening again. After the shopping mall shootings outside Portland, Oregon earlier last week, one of the first things that came to mind was, How soon before it happens again? And even if I couldn’t have foreseen how soon it would happen again or how bad it would turn out to be when it did, I wasn’t terribly surprised when it did.
That some mentally disordered person somewhere would lug one or more semi-automatic firearms into a crowded public place and start blowing away innocent people had all the inevitability of a seasonal hurricane or an earthquake in a seismically active region. We know it’s going to happen, we just don’t know exactly where, when, or how bad it will be. Yet, it stood to reason that it could well be sooner than later, exploding from the critical mass of the theater and mall shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and other recent locations.
This points to something I fundamentally believe about all such events. They ARE the human equivalents of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. No one freely chooses to go out and gun down a bunch of innocent adults and children. They do it because a rare set of internal and external conditions coalesce, like they did in Hurricane Sandy, to cause them to irresistibly erupt in catastrophic violence.
One speculative scenario I’ve pieced together from what I’ve read is that the shooter, whose name I won’t print, had Asperger’s syndrome; was painfully alienated from his family and society by his extreme social awkwardness and shyness; felt lonely, angry, bitter, hateful, and spiteful over what he perceived as widespread social rejection; was part of a Gothic subculture that magnified his alienation and its emotional outpourings; loved to play violent video games that aggravated his violent tendencies while desensitizing him to acting them out; had a careless, “prepper” mother with a gun fetish and an in-house armory; may have given off signs that he was on the brink of something awful but no one was paying attention or caring enough to do anything about it even though there may have been something they could have done; believed that he was a contemptible nobody in a society that glamorizes “somebodies”; paid close attention to the theater and mall shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere and fantasized about them; and decided that if his lonely, miserable life as a hopeless social outcast was not worth living, he might as well end it by venting his anger and hatred for a society that marginalized and ignored him, and do it in a way that would make him a somebody that people would never, ever forget even if he wouldn’t be around to bask in the notoriety.
Like I said, this is all just speculation, but I would like to think that by examining all the available facts, law enforcement and behavioral scientists might be able to assemble a pretty accurate and insightful picture of the shooter and of what caused and enabled him to act as he did and that this understanding might prove useful for helping to prevent future shooting rampages. In the meantime, after thinking about this awful story and reading articles and editorials about it and related issues such as gun control and mental health care in America, here are some of my ideas about steps we should consider taking to decrease gun violence in our society.
First, if we’re as sick and tired of gun violence as many of us say we are and, in any event, should be, why not declare that we, as a society, will no longer tolerate criminal gun violence and follow up by instituting severe, even draconian penalties for illegal gun selling, purchasing, possession, and use? For instance, why not summarily execute anyone who uses a gun to commit a crime? And why not incarcerate for life or for a very long time anyone caught carrying a loaded firearm in public without a legal permit?
Second, why not ban ALL sales of firearms and ammo to anyone who hasn’t been thoroughly screened and hasn’t passed stringent tests of firearm knowledge and proficiency, and why not require people who own firearms to be periodically re-screened and re-tested in order to keep them, just as we have to pass re-screenings and re-tests to maintain our driving privileges?
Third, why not ban the sale and possession of all high caliber, semi automatic assault weapons and high capacity magazines for civilians who have no exceptionally good reason to own them?
Fourth, why not refrain from publishing in the television or print media the name of anyone who commits such heinous mass murder, thereby discouraging would-be mass murderers from seeking their fifteen minutes of fame that will never come to them by name?
Fifth, why not follow Rabbi Michael Lerner’s advice and inculcate non-sectarian values and powerful psychotherapeutic, social, and conflict resolution skills in our children in our public schools?
Finally, why don’t we take it upon ourselves as individuals and as a nation to move far enough away from our enshrined “Greed is good,” libertarian, dog-eat-dog, “rugged individualism,” and “personal freedom” ethos to at least provide far better for the common good in terms of physical and mental health care and other social welfare while also becoming more empathic, compassionate, and caring as individuals toward our neighbors and all humankind throughout the nation and the world? For surely, whatever religion we embrace, or even if we embrace no religion at all, we would almost all agree that we’re lacking as a people in terms of how we care for “the least among us” and for the troubled, and the horrific events of last Friday should make this all the more evident.
Of course there are counterarguments to each and every one of my general suggestions, and some of them may even be cogent. But surely there are things we can do or should at least try to do to protect ourselves and our children not only from gun massacres but also from gun violence of all kinds, and surely there is no better time than now to draw upon the energy of our anger at the status quo and of our desperation for change in the wake of last Friday’s bloodbath of the innocent to come together and seek viable answers and solutions and not let the proverbial perfect be “the enemy of the good.” As President Obama eloquently stated in his moving memorial service eulogy last night, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this. If there’s even one step we can take to save another child, another parent, or another town from the grief that’s visited Tuscon and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.”
On July 22, 2011, 32-year-old Anders Breivik calmly slaughtered 77 children and adults in a meticulously planned and bloody barrage of bombings and shootings purposed with stamping out the alleged corruptions of Islam, feminism, Zionism, Marxism, multiculturalism, and other evils destroying European civilization. He was found guilty and accorded Norway’s maximum sentence of “preventive detention” in August of this year. This means he must spend at least 10 years in prison or 21 years (100 days for each count of murder) there at most unless he’s deemed unfit for release after that time and detained longer or even for the remainder of his life. Most experts believe that he will never get out.
One might expect the unapologetic perpetrator of such monstrous mass murder to, at best, languish in a cramped cell with spartan accommodations and endure rough handling from his jailers. Instead, he lounges in digs many would envy. His cell looks less like a dungeon than an Ikea display of optimal small-space habitation, and he even had full use of a computer in his comparatively spacious, three-room quarters right up until being sentenced for his crimes. After his computer was removed and he waited for a replacement electric typewriter, he had to use a flexible (to prevent its deployment as a weapon) rubber “nightmare” pen that cramped his hand to write out tortuous treatises defending his murderous mayhem, and he didn’t like it.
In fact, in a scolding, 27-page letter to prison officials he presented a stinging litany of complaints about the “inhumane” indignities he was forced to endure including not only the rubber pen, which he called “an almost indescribable manifestation of sadism,” but also the routine censoring of his mail and phone calls, strip searches, cold coffee, “unwelcoming” prison guards, noisy fellow inmates, and having to wait as long as forty minutes for guards to switch on and off his TV and lights each day from controls located outside his cell.
Had Breivik committed his ghastly crimes in just about any other part of the world he would no doubt have far more to complain about, were he even left alive to complain, but he’s in Norway, and Norway has one of the most lenient justice systems in the world, based, as it is, on the lofty principle of “restorative justice” aimed at healing everyone affected by a crime, including the perpetrator, and arguably remarkably effective at preventing violence in prison and recidivism upon release.
Yet, even Norwegian justice is grounded on the conventional belief that, except in very rare cases of obvious insanity, people commit crimes of their own free will and can therefore be held responsible for them, and Breivik was adjudged sane and responsible for his atrocities. More specifically, he was judged not to have a psychotic condition that caused him to enact his murder spree, and he was consequently sent to prison rather than a psychiatric facility. But what if Breivik didn’t have free will and couldn’t help but do what he did on that infamously “Bloody Friday” in July? How so, given the fact that he very deliberately planned and perpetrated his massacre? How could he not have been free if he wanted to kill all those people and was able to carry out his homicidal intentions with chilling efficacy? Because, says philosopher and free will scholar Robert Kane, being free to do what one wills is only a “surface freedom” and not necessarily “free will” as philosophers understand it. That is, if one is free to do what one wills but is determined by causes one doesn’t control to will what one does and to act out that will, how is that free will? As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in his recent book Free Will, “free will” is the belief that “(1) Each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) We are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present,” and, says Harris, the notion that we have this magical capacity is undermined by a growing body of scientific research showing that our thoughts, choices, and actions inevitably originate from interacting physical, biological, psychological, social, and cultural conditions of which we aren’t fully conscious and over which we exert incomplete control. And if this is true of all of us, it’s certainly true of people such as Anders Breivik who commit criminal atrocities. For as Sarah Lucas recently wrote in the Humanist, if we apply Harris’ argument to the Breivik case, we conclude that “had you been born with Anders Breivik’s genes, grown up in the same environment, been dealt the same life experiences and woken up on that July 22 morning with an identical brain, you would have committed his crimes (after all, you would have been him).”
Sam Harris’ argument is controversial, to be sure, but what if he’s right and people can’t help but commit the crimes they do given their nature when they commit them? How should society deal with them? Should it ensconce them in almost palatial prisons like Breivik’s or subject them to harsher treatment? And if the latter, how much harsher should that treatment be? Many would argue that justice isn’t only about inflicting upon the perpetrator what he or she deserves but also providing society what it needs to heal after the crime. In Breivik’s case, it’s difficult to see how Norwegian society would rest satisfied with Breivik’s present circumstances and readily heal from the terrible trauma he inflicted. Many would argue that justice is also about deterring future crimes, and, again, it’s difficult to see how Breivik’s cozy living arrangements will deter other dementedly xenophobic souls bent on violently rescuing European civilization from ruin at the hands of barbarian invaders from without and ideological traitors from within. Moreover, what if Harris is wrong and Breivik freely chose to murder all those people. Was justice served in his case? That is, even if Breivik spends the rest of his life in prison, did he reap the punishment he deserves, and will his punishment deter others from committing similarly egregious crimes and provide Norwegian society with the healing and stabilizing sense that justice was served? The horrendous case of Anders Breivik raises pressing questions about the nature of justice, free will, and responsibility more than most, and we would do well to spend more time contemplating them.
"Of all the routes it could have taken over Sacramento, to end up flying right over me and, judging from its flight path, possibly right over the top of our house seems so wildly improbable. Only the biblical God could have worked such a miraculous improbability! I'm now a believer! LOL" ~ My Facebook comment
I never expected to be so lucky. I knew Space Shuttle Endeavor would be flying over downtown Sacramento this morning on its circuitous route to its final resting place in Los Angeles, but I thought the only way I'd see her was on TV.
Oh, I could have caught the bus and braved the downtown crowds to see her for sure somewhere around the State Capitol building some five or so miles from my house, but I didn't want to spend $5 and take the trouble to do that, and, besides, they don't call Sacramento the "City of Trees" for nothing. Trees and tall buildings would have probably blocked my view so much that I would have seen only a little of the shuttle unless I went to the top of one of the parking garages where big crowds were gathering even an hour or more before Endeavor's scheduled appearance.
No, I decided that I'd walk to a local park a few blocks away from my house and look toward the South at the appropriate time on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, I'd see Endeavour as a tiny speck in the distant sky. Other people had gathered there too thinking the same thoughts I was but feeling no more hopeful than I was until, quite suddenly, we heard and saw a fighter jet and then the shuttle carrier with Endeavor riding on top of it, and a few moments later it flew almost directly over the top of us at an altitude that I'd crudely estimate to be no greater than several hundred feet. It was flying so low over us that it seemed like I could have almost hit it with a rock had I wanted to. I couldn't have asked for a clearer, more unobstructed view of her, and I realized that her flight path would probably be taking her almost right over my house.
It was a spectacular sight for someone who has thrilled to NASA's manned space program from its inception in the late 50's. I won't ever forget what I saw today, and I feel quite confident that, just as I can still remember watching spellbound in my school classroom live television coverage of Mercury capsule splashdowns in the Atlantic Ocean, the schoolchildren on the playground and in the field adjacent to the park won't ever forget seeing Endeavor fly low over their heads this morning, and perhaps it will inspire one of them to become an astronaut and be part of a lunar colony or an expedition to Mars someday. And maybe it will inspire many others to support the space program during the difficult years to come when government will be pressured by economic challenges and political shortsightedness to slash federal spending on our once glorious space program to the bone.
Endeavor flew twenty-five missions into space and racked up over 120,000,000 miles. But none of her flights were as meaningful to me as the one she took today, and I'm so glad I took a chance and walked to that park for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I've written about her before, and you can bet I will again. But for now, brace yourself and watch the two videos below. If you're at all like me, you'll never be able to get your fill of this unqualified musical genius who has revitalized the genre popularly and sometimes pejoratively called fusion. She and her music will fill your mind, heart, and soul and, when you see or hear her, she will make you thrilled to be alive.
My wife and I returned Sunday from a one week vacation in New York City and Washington D.C. It may be the last time I'll ever travel far away from home, but I hope it isn't.
I haven't flown many times in my 59 years, but I've always enjoyed it when I have. This time was no exception, despite the choppier than usual flight near Denver on our way home and the baby who kept screaming most of the way there from D.C.
I've written many times in this blog about my learning difficulties. This post from 2007 provides a pretty good overview. As long as I stay cocooned in my house, I don't think or worry too much about my learning problems. I just think about other things instead. But when I go on trips, they are brought into vivid focus.
For instance, on the airplanes, I couldn't make much sense of the demonstrated emergency procedures, and I realized that if I'd had the misfortune of being seated next to an emergency exit, I would have had to relinquish my seat to someone who could open the door in a jiffy if he or she needed to.
But that was nothing compared to figuring out subway and bus routes in New York City. There is no way I could have done that myself and, therefore, no way I could travel to a place like New York City myself unless I was rich enough to have cabs take me everywhere to which I couldn't walk. My wife was the navigator, and I constantly marveled at how easy it seemed to be for her to figure everything out.
I'm not saying she's better at it than most, although I suspect that she is. I'm saying that I'm far, far worse at it than most. The subway and bus routes remained totally incomprehensible to me the whole four days we were in New York City and rode subways and buses all over Manhattan and beyond.
And when we arrived at Union Station in D.C., I was more than overwhelmed by the fare schedules, not to mention the routing of public transit there. For, unlike New York City, where one can ride an MTA bus or subway anywhere in the city at any time of day or night for the same $2.25 fare (which we made even simpler by buying one-week unlimited-ride MTA cards for $29 apiece), in Washington D.C. the amount you pay depends on whether you're riding a bus or train, how far you travel, and what time of day you do it. Even my wife was initially confused by this as we tried to figure out how to get from Union Station to our hotel, and I was hopelessly benumbed by it.
But let me stop talking about my learning deficits and backtrack to our first day in New York City. We landed at LaGuardia Airport and took a cab that we thought would cost us around $60 to get to our hotel a few miles away in New Jersey. It ended up costing us almost twice that. My wife and I were both upset over this, yet, there didn't seem to be anything we could do about it. The price we were charged corresponded to an official looking fare schedule the driver showed us.
I guess the moral of the story is to ask beforehand how much it will cost to get where you want to go from the airport and look for someone who will charge you what your research tells you is a reasonable fare. Or, better still, go online before your trip and try to reach an agreement on the fare with some cab company at your destination, the way I did with the cab that took us from home to the Sacramento airport and back home after the return flight.
After we checked in to our hotel in Fort Lee, New Jersey, we discovered that we couldn't walk to any restaurant or fast food joint nearby, since there was only a freeway and no sidewalks outside the hotel, and we didn't want to pay the exorbitant prices for the food served at the hotel, so we ate complimentary chocolate chip cookies sweet enough to almost gag us and called it a night. But not until we were roused from our room by a fire alarm that necessitated evacuation of all guests from the building for over half an hour while the fire department checked things out and determined that a broken water main to one of the hotel restrooms triggered the alarm and we were allowed back into the hotel.
However, the hotel did provide shuttle service to downtown Manhattan, and we checked out the next morning as scheduled, boarded the shuttle, and made our way to the big city. Now I caught my first glimpse of the New York skyline that I had seen only on TV and in the movies since my only other visit there almost fifty years ago.
Ever since my first visit decades ago, I've held this fascination with the Big Apple that periodically surfaces in dreams or in unusually intense reactions to songs such as "New York State of Mind." Now I was back in the city of my recurring dreams and awed by the skyscrapers and energy of the city. I began to pick out landmarks such as the David Letterman studio and CBS headquarters as we drove past them in the shuttle.
Once we were let off at a hotel (but not our hotel) in midtown Manhattan, I was characteristically clueless and helpless about what to do or where to go next, but fortunately my wife wasn't. She found a subway station pretty quickly, bought us MTA cards from the machine, and figured out which subway train to take and where to get off, and our New York adventure began in earnest.
We were allowed to check in to our hotel early and even eat the complimentary breakfast served there, and then we set off on foot to check out the local terrain. It just so happened that it was Memorial Day, and the weather was so unusually hot and muggy for that time of year that even New Yorkers were complaining, but I guess we were so thrilled with the novelty of our fabled surroundings that we didn't notice the heat so much. At least not until after we'd walked a couple of miles or so to the harbor where we stood in line to take a speedboat ride on New York Harbor. By then I was awfully thirsty and a little tired.
But after baking in the sun in line for what seemed like longer than it was, the speedboat ride cooled us off and provided me with the first of many uncharacteristically patriotic moments.
If you've wasted any time reading this blog or you know me personally, you realize that I'm not the flag-waving, gun-toting, " apple-pie-gorging, America's #1" chest-beating type by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if I were to wave any flag, it would have to be one of those "Earth flags" adorned with a photo of the whole Earth as viewed from space. Yet, as we sped down the Hudson River and slowed as we passed Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, I was nearly overcome with tears as I imagined how immigrants seeking a better life here in the States must have felt for almost a century when they saw the glorious "Green Lady," as my wife calls her, beckoning them to freedom in a land of plenty. At that moment, I felt tremendous pride in my country.
I received a birthday card in the mail from my mom on my birthday today, and it said, "At the end of the day, may you look back and say "It was perfect.""
Well, it's not over yet, but I have to say that it's been a pretty nice day so far. I've done nothing spectacular, but I've almost always been someone who enjoys the simple things of life. Good food, good company, my loving wife and beautiful pets, good music, and time online are among those simple but hugely satisfying pleasures. And I've enjoyed all of those things in abundance today.
Beyond this day, when I look back on my entire life, there's a part of me that says, "It was perfect." Then another part of me says, "How can you say your life has been perfect when you've not only wasted so much of it but also done things you deeply regret? What is 'perfect' about THAT?"
Well, what is "perfect" about it is that I don't believe it could have been otherwise. Given my nature, which I believe has always been inseparable from the nature of the whole unified universe, I think I have been and done exactly what I had to be and do.
I realize that this is not the conventional definition of "perfection," which has more to do with meeting some lofty standard of flawless fulfillment, whatever that might be. And goodness knows that I haven't even come close to meeting my or society's standards and fulfilling my personal and human potential.
Yet, unlike past birthdays when I've posted some pretty uninspired if not gloomy entries about what another wasted year I've just suffered through and how desperately I need to, but probably won't, overcome my fearful inertia and jump in the pool and either sink or swim, this year I'm going to say that I believe I can do better with what remains of my life.
I've got rough times ahead of me, without a doubt, but I believe I can rise to heights of sustained effort and accomplishment that dwarf anything I've exhibited before, and if I'm still around next year, I look forward to writing all about it.
"An athlete can find as much virtue, luminosity, and self-transcendence through sports as a monk can find through his or her spiritual practice." ~ Corey deVos
I watched the Super Bowl last Sunday.
Yes, even though I'm not a football fan, especially when the San Francisco 49'ers aren't playing, I watched the whole game with my wife. I think I did it primarily because I wanted my foreign born wife and myself to share a brief, bonding immersion in the glory and garishness of American culture on one of its most "sacred" days.
She and I immersed ourselves alright, and I almost sheepishly admit that I kind of enjoyed it. I say "almost sheepishly," because I have my share of misgivings concerning the rampant greed and crass commercialism in American sports in general and concerning the additional bone-crunching brutality of American football and disturbing bloodlust of its fans in particular.
But there's also a part of my male psyche that enjoys watching and vicariously experiencing the brute physicality, intense competitiveness, complex and shifting strategies, and kinesthetic artistry of the sport, and that likes to participate, albeit it in the cozy comfort of my living room, in a grand communal experience of all that for a few hours.
I recently read a brilliant article that masterfully exposes the roots of my ambivalence about sports. English professor and one time mediocre high school football player Mark Edmundson writes that athletics CAN "do great good: build the body, create a stronger, more resilient will, impart confidence, stimulate bravery, foment daring. But at the same time, sports often brutalize the player--they make him more aggressive, more violent. They make him intolerant of gentleness; they help turn him into a member of the pack, which defines itself by maltreating others--the weak, the tender, the differently made."
And integral writer Corey deVos writes that "There is nothing Spirit doesn't touch--from our highest ideals of love, respect, and sportsmanship to the drunken bloodlust of hearing millions of people cheering you to victory--everything finds its home in the transcendent mind of God, nestled in the immanent heart of the Sacred, where the line between winning and losing becomes the very same line that separates self and other, part and whole, here and eternity."
I admit that I would like to see sports assume a less important place in American culture than it does. I'd like to see people spending less time cheering for their favorite athletic team while stuffing their faces with junk food in front of their TV sets or in the stadium stands, and more time in their own physical activities, visiting with family and friends, or educating themselves in subjects in which they're so appallingly ignorant that it's no wonder they're such woefully underinformed voters in our democratic elections.
Yet, I have to concede that sports are not the thoroughgoing evil that some simplistically make them out to be and that, when enjoyed in moderation, they can range from harmless to uplifting.
My wife asked me recently what time of the day I was born. I told her I didn't know and asked her why she wanted to. She didn't answer, but I'm guessing it was for some kind of Thai astrological purpose. She told me to ask my mom when I was born, and so I did.
My mom told me the time and said she went to the hospital that day to have labor induced because I was "too lazy to emerge" on my own since she had probably made it too cozy for me "on the inside." I wasn't born until twelve hours later. This got me to thinking.
I've been late to do a lot of things that most people do much earlier in their lives, and I suppose this could be construed as laziness. But I think it's probably more attributable to fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of failure.
I've always been afraid--unusually afraid, I think--to step outside the comfort zone of my routines. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I feel inadequate, and rightfully so, for meeting the adaptive challenges of change. I've learned over the decades that I don't handle change well, because it takes me longer than most, if not forever, to figure out my new circumstances and develop a way to deal with them effectively.
But I'm thinking my fear of change might not be only a learned tendency but also an innate one, one that was programmed into my genes or into my basic biology in some other way and that began expressing itself when it was time for me to face one of the biggest changes one ever faces in life--the change of being born, and I somehow resisted.
I can't help but wonder if any research has been done or might be done that investigates what if any relationship there might be between the length of a woman's labor and the resistance of her offspring to changes throughout life.
Don't tell my wife, but I'm in love with another woman. Well, actually, I'm exaggerating a little. I'm not in love with the woman (you know I have to say that), but I am in love with her musical brilliance.
I'm talking about Hiromi Uehara, a 32-year-old Japanese pianist who is called a jazz pianist but actually blends and transcends musical categories to deliver phenomenal keyboard virtuosity and passion in solo and group performances all over the world.
I had never even heard of Hiromi until today, but now that I've watched some of her videos on YouTube and listened to one of her albums, I will certainly never forget her and will do my best to attend one or more of her concerts if she ever comes to my neck of the California woods.
Rarely has a musician bowled me over from the very beginning the way she has. In fact, I can think of only one other who has had this kind of earth-shaking immediate impact on me.
No doubt, Hiromi's looks and joyful exhuberance on stage have something to do with it, but her music is also extraordinary. That's what the great jazz pianist Chick Corea must have thought when he discovered her in Tokyo years ago and had her play with him the next evening. And that's what jazz bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke must have thought when she toured and recorded with him sometime back.
You can read her Wikipedia bio here, check out her website here, read a 2003 interview with her here, and sample some of her amazing musical artistry below. But be sure to watch and not just listen: